Earlier this month, Lisa Marie Sopko quickly loaded up dozens of animals, with the help of volunteers, to evacuate her rescue ranch in Darlington, Pennsylvania.
“We got almost 80 large animals out and then we got about half of our birds out and then the rest of them we had to just enclose,” said Sopko, the founder of Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch, a nonprofit ranch that’s home to more than 200 animals. “We just didn't feel comfortable.”
Just days before, on Feb. 3, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, which is 4 miles away. People who lived in the vicinity were told the following day that some of the cars that derailed and crashed were carrying toxic chemicals.
Officials scrambled after learning one car was at risk of exploding. Residents in a one-mile radius were told to evacuate as they prepared for a controlled burn of the chemicals.
“The next day when we had heard there was going to be a controlled burn and that everybody should evacuate and that there was kind of like a death circle so to speak, we knew it was time for us to get out,” Sopko said.
“We did see the plume. The plume did come over us. We did have some eye burning and kind of skin irritation and things the day we were evacuating,” she explained. Vinyl chloride - one of the chemicals being transported on the train - is known to cause exhaustion, abdominal pain, and other health issues, according to the CDC.
Vinyl chloride exposure is also associated with an increased risk of liver cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute
Sopko said something like this could happen anywhere.
“People should care because those trains go right through your cities, folks,” Sopko said.
The animals were temporarily moved to a nearby fairground for a couple of days while the controlled burn took place.
“When I came back to the farm, I looked immediately for the small songbirds that live in both of our barns and they were alive and doing well so that was a positive sign for me,” Sopko said.
She tested the air at the ranch and said the results came back fine.
“Now we have some concerns, you know obviously, about soil contamination and the water tables and the well water, but we’re cautiously optimistic,” she said.
She is doing her own independent testing on her soil and the duck pond on her property.
In the weeks following the train derailment, the Ohio EPA took samples of raw, untreated water directly from all five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water system. The tests found no evidence of contamination associated with the derailment, according to the Ohio EPA.
None of the rescue ranch’s animals have had any health issues, so far, that Sopko is aware of.
“I definitely think we're going to see chemical issues, you know, health issues with chemicals over time for sure. I don't know if it'll be right away but I think over the course of time we'll see it, but hopefully, the railroad will do the right thing,” she said.